Miss Robbie's Christmas Gift
By Algie Ray Smith

Posted on December 21, 2017 12:05 PM


Part 1

November 6, 1954 10 a.m.

The first Saturday in November was a warm balmy day more likely to be found in September. However, the look was autumnal. The trees that had not given up their leaves were dressed in fairy hues of yellow, brown, and orange.

The night of ghosts and goblins had been returned to the closets and attics. The trick-or-treat candy all devoured. Now, hams were being taken from the smokehouses. Turkeys were in the fattening pens. The heavy tome-like Sears and Roebuck catalogs were in the mail.

The small boy, mid-way in his first year of experience as a teenager, pedaled his candy apple red and chrome Schwinn Phantom westward on Sixth Street, bound for wherever boys with time on their hands go wandering.

He was clad in a long sleeved green sweater, tan corduroy slacks with the right leg cuff secured with a rubber band to keep it from entangling with the bike chain. Absent from his usual attire was his beloved Cleveland Indians baseball cap.

The pang of disappointment when his beloved Indians went 0-4 in the World Series still stung a bit; but his grandmother assured him that there was always “next year”.

“Aw, Mammy,” he had answered. “It was that old pinch hitter Dusty Rhodes. He beat us every game. He hit 4 for 6, two homers, and had 7 RBI’s.”

“Boy, if you kept your mind on your studies as good as you did on baseball, you’d be a genius.”

And the boy’s friend Shorty didn’t help make the Indians’ loss to the Giants go away any quicker when he started this joke around school: “Why are the Indians traveling by airplane next season? Why, because they don’t like “DUSTY Roads”.

The boy rode his bike with a rhythm of pump, pump, GLIDE, remaining seated in the saddle all the while. When he crossed Summer Street, he spied HER at the end of the block on the southeast corner of Sixth and Main. He decided to coast over and see what Miss Robbie was painting.

He stopped silently, near her, feet planted on either side of the bike. At first the woman did not notice him. She was busy at a small canvas which rested on her knees. A palette of rainbow colors lay at her feet. She held a small yellow-encrusted brush in her right hand. Beneath the chair on which she rested was a besmeared wooden box similar to a shoeshine kit filled with twisted tubes and tubes of artists paints.

Behind her a large black dog slept, his upper lips vibrating silently. Now and then one of his hind legs would twitch and his long tail would thump the sidewalk.

“Gu-morning, Miss Robbie. Whatcha drawin?”

The dumpy little lady was dressed all in black except for a camel hair coat she had put on to fend off the wind. She picked up a rag that reeked of turpentine and began to clean the brush. She eyed the brush as if it were a fine diamond.

“I’m not drawing anything, Smitty. I draw with a pen. I paint with a brush.” She nodded at the canvas. “Look. What do you see?”

The boy leaned forward, edging his bike closer to the canvas where he beheld the town library beginning to take shape among the trees on the canvas.

 “I see the library, but you have the brick too red and the steps not gray enough. And the front door needs brown, I expect.”

 Miss Robbie pointed the now clean brush at him as if she were a maestro about to conduct an orchestra. “Everybody’s a critic these days. I suppose you are an art savant.”

 “Oh, no,” the boy answered with a smile as he returned his rear end to the bike saddle. “I was just saying….. aw, you know me… Mammy says I always got an opinion on something.”

She began to mix a little white paint with the red. “I surely do know you. You’re Ray. Of the Smith tribe. You and your brother Ken and your sister Eva ate lunch with me when I had that fool notion last year that I could turn a dollar operating a cafeteria for you school kids up the street from my studio.”

The boy nodded. “That’s right. Mighty good fixings, too. I could eat a dozen of your hot dogs. Mammy says I have a straight gut, whatever that is.”

“Most like you got a tape worm. And you’re a paper boy, too. I’ve seen you scattering your papers on porches all over. And you’re a reader. I’ve seen you sitting over there on the library steps reading orange books while your two-wheeler is blocking the sidewalk.”

She huffed up her chest as if she might say more about him, but instead turned back to her art. “Now,” she advised speaking a bit loudly over her shoulder, “you may watch me for a bit, but don’t get too close and don’t bother Winston; he needs his sleep, and no more comments.”

“Yes, Ma’m.”

“And, Ray, don’t get the idea I don’t like you. I admire your work ethic very much. Most boys your age are wasting their time hanging out at Duncan’s Soda Fountain.”

He didn’t answer, but continued to watch silently as she began to lighten red shades of the bricks on the canvas.

“Christmas is coming. I have to finish this painting for a client. I have to make my Christmas cards. I make my own, you know. They’re much better than the store bought ones. More personal.”

Winston moaned softly in his sleep and jerked both his back legs. The boy supposed the dog was chasing a rabbit.

“Hush up, Winston. Dreaming of an adventure he had in his younger day, I suppose.”

Miss Robbie went back to her creating. The boy began to crab walk his bike back into the street. She called to him again. “Don’t be surprised if I put you on my Christmas list this year. A right nice gift for you just crossed my mind.”

The boy stood and pumped hard on the bike pedals, turning down Main Street at the First Baptist Church. Miss Robbie’s remark about hanging out at Duncan’s Soda Fountain reminded him that he hadn’t eaten in nearly three hours. He would have Reid the soda jerk make him a double strawberry shake. It would hit the spot with a pack of peanut butter Nabs.

Part 11

Wednesday, December22, 1954  8 a.m.


In the crisp morning air the old rooster Cockle Doodle Do flapped his way to the top of an ice encrusted fence post, swelled his chest and heralded the new day for the third time. Eos had already retreated to wherever dawn goddesses await their next duty.

In the barnyard a few scrawny hens, happy that they were neither turkey or hams, scratched and pecked at the frosty ground looking for remnants of yesterday’s feeding and awaiting the contents of Mammy’s apron when she finally bought out fresh scraps.

The boy’s grandmother entered the boarded in the back room where the boy slept on a sagging feather mattress. He was cocooned like a mummy in a museum case. Only his face, nose upward, was exposed.

“Boy,” Mammy called, softly placing a hand where she thought a shoulder might be and pushing against it gently.

The boy stirred, mumbling something incoherent. “Ahsplizuzip spat.”

“Time to get up, Ray,” she spoke more strongly, this time shaking the hidden shoulder. “You’re the last one to still be abed. Don’t you know Christmas is coming?”

The boy sat up stiffly, his eyes popping open like the weighted eyes of a ceramic doll. “Yes, and the geese are getting fat. What time is it?”

“Nigh on to eight. You better look sharp. I got a chore for you soon as you eat your breakfast.”

The boy sniffed the chily air, detecting on aroma of bacon, of ham, of egg wafting on it. “Anything left for me to eat, Mammy?”

As she turned away, she pulled her words lke corn from her apron pocket and tossed them at him, laughing. “All gone, but I”ll rustle you up some Aunt Jemina hot cakes and churned butter, Karo, and cow juice.”

“Faster than a speeding bullet,” he was dressed and seated at the pitted oaken table in the warm kitchen. A steaming stack of seven flap jacks was placed before him, which he drowned in the rich brown syrup and attacked it as if he were a knight in battle.

Mammy heaved a sigh that lifted her tiny shoulders to the heights of her ears and warned. “Boy, make an effort to chew. No wonder your belly gives you fits at times.”

There was nothing left to chew, so he took the plate in both of his hands, brought it to his lips and licked the sticky goo until it all had followed Aunt Jemima. “What do you want me to do, Mammy? I got to go to town today. Will you back me for a dollar until Daddy pays me Friday? I got to get Sharon sumpin for Christmas.”

 “Yes, but that’s a heap of wealth to spend on a girl. You aren’t figuring on marrying her some day, are you?”

 “No, aint studied on it.”

 “Well, then, I need eggs, for my boiled custard. Go the hen house and get all of them you can find. Your sisters won’t go. They’re afraid of old Samson. (Sam was the reigning rooster, too proud to crow. He strutted and flapped his wings. Mammy had named him Samson because he had once killed a stray cat that made the mistake in thinking Samson’s ladies were easy prey.)

 “Sure. I can get you the eggs. Anything else:?”

 “Not from me, I guess. However, Mrs. Theodosia Graham from the library called. She left you a message.”

 “A new orange book, I bet,” he piped up. “ I’ve finished the one about Lou Gehrig, BOY OF THE SAND LOTS. I figured on reading it again but I can take it back today. She don’t like  for me to have too many books out at one time.”

 “That’s right smart of her, knowing as to how irresponsible you can be, but Mrs. Graham didn’t say anything about any orange book. She only said that she had something very important to show you. Now that doesn’t sound like a book to me.”

 “Gee, Mammy, I wonder what it is.”

 “Only way is to go to the library and find out. And ask her about her mother. I heard she was porely.”

 “I will,” Ray exclaimed as he headed for the door.

 “No! First the eggs. I got more to do today than I can get done in a month of Sundays. While you’re in the hen house, I’ll fetch you up that $2. It’s a loan, mind you.”

 “Eggs. Right.” He grabbed up the wicker basket she had placed on the table next to his empty plate and tore out!

 Moments later Mammy’s brother Tetter came in, complaining, “That boy dashed out like he was Dagwood heading for work. He near knocked me down.”

 “Oh, he’s just a boy. Now, sit a spell. I got a fresh pot of American Ace on the burner. You done with the milking?”

 “Long time ago. I’ve been helping Robert feed the cows. I can surely use a cup of java; but I tell you that boy is a cyclone.”


Part III

Wednesday, December 22   10 a.m.

The boy parked his bike against a tree and made his way into the cheerful library which was partially lit by the tall windows. Once inside, he took a deep breath and sighed. He loved the smell of books. He loved the way they felt. And they were better than radio. When he listened to the Creaking Door or Gang Busters on the radio, he had to listen at a certain time, had to stay put even if he had a call of nature, or he would miss out.

 But books!! Books were always there waiting. He often fell asleep with a book beneath the covers and a flashlight illuminating the darkness. The batteries in the flashlight would be dead the next morning, but the book was still there. Waiting. Waiting to carry him away to another world.

The librarian Miss Theodosia sat at the small wooden desk, her stamp and ink pad at hand. In the middle of the desk was a small orange book. She looked up at the banging of the door.

“Close that door tight, Ray. There’s a winter air playing out there trying to get into my bones.”

 The boy walked briskly to the desk. He eyed the orange book, “Is this a new one for me?”

 “Yes, it is. Already have it stamped. You just need to sign your name.”

 He picked up the orange book and read aloud. “ANTHONY WAYNE. DARING BOY by August Stevenson. Never heard of this one, but since it’s by Miss Augusta, it’ll be a good one.”

Miss Theodosia agreed. “It’s not new. Been out since 1948, but I had a little extra money in the library fund and this one was on sale for half price.”

He turned the book over in his hands as if to check the weight of it. “Who was Anthony Wayne?”

The librarian smiled. “Oh, you’ll like to meet him. He’s an adventurer like you. He’s an officer in the American Revolutionary War. He helped raise a Pennsylvania military unit to oppose the British. Of course, he’s a boy like yourself in this book. (Miss Theodosia never referred to book characters in the past tense. To her they were all alive and living in her library.)

The boy signed the card, picked up the book and gave out a hearty MERRY CHRISTMAS to you, and thanks for calling about the book.”

He turned to go, but Miss Theodosis arose from her seat. “No, I didn’t call about the book, but I put it on my desk for when you came in. You can’t go just yet. I have something very important to show you.”

With that she led the boy to a spot between the two windows on the south side of the room. The space that had been bare before now held a large painting of the library exterior.

“Look at that, Smitty. What do you see?”

He was amazed. It was the painting that Miss Robbie had been working on that Saturday back in November. But more than the library was on the canvas.

“My bike!” he exclaimed as he pointed. “There it is in the bushes.”

“Yes,” Miss Theodosia agreed, “I’ve seen that red bike there on occasion.” “AND THAT’S ME. On the steps! That’s really me.”

“Yes, it is …and reading one of your favorite books. I’ve seen you do that, too. Just couldn’t wait to get home. You’d plop down on the steps and read and read and read…until I had to run you off.”

“But..but why did she put me in the picture?”

“She said she did it to remind you of what she said to you when she was painting it. She said something about it being a Christmas present for you.”

“I do REMEMBER. You mean she painted this for me? It’s mine. I can take it home?”

“No. No. It belongs to a gentleman from Missisissippi .She painted it for him. Fact is, he’s coming by this afternoon to fetch it.”

“But..but where’s my Christmas present? What is is?”

“Miss Robbie said that she was giving you a sort of immortality.”

“Immortality? Does that mean never dying?”

“Yes, but it also means ‘destined to be remembered’. Just as long as Miss Robbie’s painting exists, she will be remembered. And just as this one picture here exists, you will be remembered.”

“Oh.. but how will anyone know that’s me in the picture. They don’t know me in Mississippi. Well, some of my folks live there, but everyone else..”

Miss Theodocia extended her hand and lightly touched the painting with a finger. “See. Look hard. You can see your name on the step beneath your feet.”

The boy stepped forward and stared. “Zonks, as Mammy says, I feel like a cat’s done got my tongue. I don’t know what to say.”

“I have a suggestion, “ the librarian offered, “ Why don’t you go by Miss Robbie’s studio, wish her Merry Christmas, and tell her THANK YOU.”

At that moment the heavy oaken front door opened and an old man entered, his arms laden with books.

“Go on now, Ray. Do what I suggested. I have to get back to my desk. This IS a library, you know.”

The Christmas present for Sharon was forgotten as the boy pedaled his red bike over to Summer Street. It would be nice to see Miss Robbie, nice to see Winston; but…a present? What could he possibly get her? What would a 72-year-old lady want that she didn’t have already? His mother and his older sister used cologne, especially Wind Song, but he didn’t even know if Miss Robbie would like it. Would she wear a pin or ear rings? He doubted it. He hadn’t see any jewelry on her that he could recall. And she always wore dark colors, so she wouldn’t like a bright boa like he had bought Mammy one Christmas.

Then Flash! An inspiration! There was a noon movie all this week at THE DIXIE PICTURE SHOW. It was a new Christmas movie: WHITE CHRISTMAS, starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, and Rosemary Clooney. What would Miss Robbie say if he asked her would she like tto go to the picture show with him…his treats, of course.. and he would spring for popcorn, Coca-Cola and Milk Duds. He assumed she liked those items; he certainly did. So did Sharon! Oh, Sharon! What if she was at the picture show. What would she say to him?

“I don’t care,” he said to the wind as he pulled his bike across the curb at Miss Robbie’s studio.

He knocked at the big wooden door, heard the scratching of paws as Winston got up in response to his knocking. Then the door opened and Miss Robbie exclaimed, “Why, Ray, what a surprise?”

He was a bit surprised, a little shocked when after he wished Miss Robbie a Merry Christmas, he put the picture show proposal to her…AND SHE ACCEPTED!

“That Bing Crosby is a real crooner,” she smiled. “He is one my favorite singers. I certainly would like to go and see it.”

“We have a few minutes….”

“Oh, sit over there by my Christmas tree while I get my coat and take Winston for a walk. I won’t be long.”

As the boy crossed Fourth Street, arm and arm with Miss Robbie, a few snowflakes began to fall.1

“Wonderful!” She exclaimed. WE, TOO, will have a white Christmas!”

(NOTE: Miss Robbie McClean is a real person. She was born in Russellville on October 22, 1882. She was a 1901 graduate of Logan Female College, after which she spent several years in New York and exhibited her paintings there. When she returned to Russellville, she continued to paint. She passed away at the Auburn Nursing Center on December 7, 1975.

She lived on Summer Street between Fourth and Fifth in a house built by Gov. John Breathitt. I did eat at her “cafeteria” one semester. I did see her painting the old bank building and I did stop to watch her. I did read all the orange history books the library had. The rest of this story is fiction.



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